The Mermaid, my first performance artwork after a three-year art hiatus, debuted in 2018 at Art, Not Apart, a festival in Canberra, Australia, with later remounts at Ainslie + Gorman Arts Centres, for I-Day 2018, and Sydney Festival 2020. This work was my “coming out” as disabled; for years, I had been hiding my illnesses from my colleagues and friends with a subterfuge of vague excuses and radio silence, but with this work I claimed my new identity in a public act. I put my body at risk to speak out and be seen—a radical action against the shame born of internalized ableism and the cultural invisibility that facilitates us hurting each other and our planet.
The character of the mermaid is a symbol of the social model: in the water the mermaid moves freely, but on land she presents as disabled; it is the environment, not her body, that creates the barrier. The Mermaid asks us to consider what our shared resources are and how our pollution of those resources disables the people, creatures, and systems around us.
Placing my real mobility and medical aids—a wheelchair, oxygen tank, full-face respirator, saline IV drip, and body orthoses—against the image of a mermaid, I spoke of my experience of disability, illness, and climate in the same space as the public. This sharing of space, however, meant sharing the air, and it ran the risk of triggering serious allergic events, including anaphylaxis, seizures, dystonic storms, and episodes of paralysis, which could “interrupt” the work at any moment, any number of times. The audience found their places inside the ruins of the abandoned coal tunnels of the Coal Loader—an old coal processing station, now turned sustainability center, on Sydney Harbour’s edge—but, if they were wearing fragrance or cosmetics, they were asked to move to an upstairs area or the rear of the space. Segregation, something routinely experienced by the disabled, affected their access and framed their experience.
This risk variable was built into the structure of the piece with a kind of dark and irreverent humor. For example, a mast cell seizure, which left my body thrashing about on the floor in a state of complete vulnerability and lack of agency, would result in very loud surf rock music playing as assistants held up cue cards and reiterated through a megaphone that I was having an allergic reaction, what it was potentially triggered by, and the audience’s complicity in that event. These medical events happened ten times over the two years in which the work was performed; sometimes not at all, sometimes multiple times in one showing.
We are indivisible from the planet; the damage we do to it we are also doing to ourselves.
Why expose myself to this danger and put moments of such fragility and trauma on display?
Invisibility is the mechanism that allows us to continue to operate in a mode of “business as usual,” safe from the threat of retribution or the crush of guilt; if someone, or something, isn’t acknowledged, you don’t need to acknowledge its rights or the suffering that your actions cause it. We also create a system that perpetuates that invisibility through the mechanism of stigma and shame. These are true for many forms of oppression and exploitation, not just victims of the climate crisis. And I knew that giving in to those internalized feelings of shame would only facilitate further oppression.
Invisibility doesn’t make the problem go away; I am at the mercy of these systems whether I am in public or not. Shining a light on my own situation is also a means of shining a light on other people, species, and ecosystems, especially those that do not have the capacity to speak out or the privilege of a platform, as I do.
“On the ride back from the hospital, I saw the rocks peeking from the mountainside
and I felt like I looked at the ancient face of the country
And I said: ‘help me, I’m sick’.
And it replied: ‘me too’”
The Sydney Festival season of The Mermaid in 2020 coincided with the catastrophic bushfire emergency in Australia. Enormous swathes of land had been destroyed by mega blazes, fire tornados, and pyrocumulonimbus storms. The air was thick with a bright orange haze and the taste of ash. Suddenly, people were wearing respirators to go outside, like me. They had to seal the cracks where the air seeped into their houses, and they could smell smoke particles from an event miles away that blew into their bedroom. They started to realize how the air could hurt them. Their experience was catching up to mine, the earth was starting to wear her sickness visibly.
As I write this, COVID-19 is sweeping the globe, and other people’s lives are again starting to mirror my own: a hyperawareness of the vectors of transmission between us, our safety at the mercy of how others use our shared spaces, and the loneliness of being excluded because of a hostile, contaminated environment. We are starting to understand that we are all participants in this global event, and we need to work collectively to prevent the contamination of the air in our lungs, the fluids on our skin, and the people around us.
It is the responsibility of those with privilege to use it to protect the planet.
Canary In The Coal Mine
In contrast to the embodied practice of The Mermaid, my work Canary, a short-form piece commissioned by the Arctic Cycle for Climate Change Theatre Action 2019, highlights the absence of my body. I was interested in the way privilege can be leveraged in activism—particularly the sort of activism that puts one’s body on the line. I drew inspiration from the way allies encircle and protect marginalized protestors at Black Lives Matter marches so that they would be arrested instead of their peers, or the way the often-denigrated white, middle classness of Extinction Rebellion protestors (or of outspoken protestor celebrities) affords a kind of safety. Protestors with privilege can go out there and champion their message, and if they are arrested it ends up as a slap on the wrists, whereas for other marginalized people, that same arrest for that same action could result in incarceration, unemployment, deportation, violence, or murder. It is the responsibility of those with privilege to use it to protect the planet.
As someone who is vulnerable to harm in situations that implicate my body—though predominantly through immunologic rather than carceral channels—I became intrigued by the use of a surrogate to participate in civil disobedience. Not as a replacement of one voice for another (always something to be wary of), but as a conduit for the marginalized voice to be present without risk. I wanted to see how this could be extended to my protest-art; if, as a performer, my body could be manifested through someone else.
Canary asks another body to stand in for my body, an activism by proxy in which my absence becomes the illustration, and, like The Mermaid, asks the audience to be aware of their complicity and their responsibility in making the space inaccessible for me and those like me. The text weaves my own medical story with that of a revenge-fantasy uprising of coal-mine canaries. A dark humor is again present in these tiny bolshie birds who strip themselves naked and propose to revolt against a world that used their suffering as an exploitable tool to assist fossil fuel extraction. It challenges us to reflect upon all the different “canaries in the coal mine”—those we have relegated to being our early warning signal, the climate casualties who pay for our safety and convenience with their lives—and how we might instead leverage the privilege of our own bodies to protect theirs.
“And they are almost forgotten
In the silence of their absence
That their silence
Is the warning”
Our minds are formed and reformed through the medium of culture—that is to say story, which means text but which also means image and movement and shared experience. My performances committed the subversive act of telling the stories that society is trying to hide, of showing things we try to avoid—our own fragility, our culpability as oppressors—for us to sit in the discomfort required to instigate change.
These artworks are not just stories but actions: the act of placing one’s body in a state of precarity to illustrate a hidden reality, the act of transforming a moment of real private suffering into a public political message, the act of standing in or speaking for beings who cannot, the act of breathing air with an audience and making them aware of what is in that air, the act of creating a visible image for the invisible effects of our actions. The process of creating these artworks was also an action of revolt against the unsustainable systems that I, as an artist, was guilty of perpetuating.
We do not need to conquer and mold nature, and we do not need to conquer or “cure” our bodies. We need to work with them.
The Show Must Not Go On
Just as healing the climate crisis requires not individual solutions but an overhaul of our current social and economic system, creating these artworks revealed to me that accessing these stories within my body would require entirely new modes of working. Becoming disabled forced me to become aware of not just how my body was a stage on which our damage to the planet played out, but how the “extractivist” mindsets of our culture underpinned my relationship with my body and my art. I used to treat my body as if it were a limitless resource for me to use to achieve my aims; I worked grueling hours and pushed myself until I collapsed, I believed I could mold my body into a machine in which any weakness was to be conquered through trying harder. While I preached the need for sustainability, social justice, and relationships between ourselves and our planet that prioritized communal and interdependent care, my most intimate of relationships, and perhaps therefore the most honest—with myself—was championing these capitalist, hyper-extractive ideals.
In the past, if a task was too large, a hurdle insurmountable, a deadline too close, I’d dig in and push through, and accomplish the “impossible.” I was willing to burn up every part of myself in the service of my art—and quite specifically in service of producing proliferate results from increasingly scarce resources: time, sleep, food, headspace, energy. But this new awareness forced me to embrace attributes I would previously have derided—slowness, incapability, surrender—and to preference a sustainable relationship with my body over productivity; to treat my body as I would want to treat the earth, and to admit that, sometimes, the show must not go on.
Exhaustion, overwork, proliferative output, and stress are lauded in theatre; how many artists are in multiple projects at once, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, demanding impossible hours and physical/mental/emotional energy from their bodies without adequate physical, mental, or emotional nourishment? But when I became disabled, that “resource” of energy was suddenly precarious and finite, and I had to admit that I was not capable of doing everything alone—whether that meant getting in and out of my wheelchair, feeding myself, or making artwork. The web of connectivity that we exist within became tangible and necessary to my survival.
“I dug deeper and deeper into that dwindling reservoir of energy
With no thought for how or if it could replenish
I wanted to take my health back by force”